Scenes from Prometheus

Programme note

Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827)
Scenes from Prometheus (1801)

Pastorale (Allegro)
Solo della Signora Casentini (Andantino - Adagio - Allegro)
Finale (Allegretto - Allegro molto)

Though his Seventh Symphony was nicknamed by Wagner “The Apotheosis of the Dance,” Beethoven and ballet seem like a contradiction in terms. Yet by the age of 31 he had composed two such scores. The first, his early Ritterballet, was merely hackwork, ghost-written for his friend Count Waldstein; but Prometheus, a few years later, was altogether more ambitious, and one of his first big Viennese successes.

Its full title, Die Geschopfe des Prometheus, has been variously translated as the Creatures, or the Creations, or the Children of Prometheus, but the story has little to do with the mythical hero who was chained to a rock, where an eagle tore at his liver until Hercules rescued him. Beethoven’s Prometheus suffers no such hardship. A more idealistic figure, he seemed something of a classical Lord Reith, who “drove ignorance from the people, and gave them manners, customs, and morals.” In Act One of this full-length ballet, he brings two statues to life. In Act Two, he delivers them to Parnassus to be instructed by Apollo and the Muses and endowed with the blessings of culture.

Sir Donald Tovey, Edinburgh University’s famous musical essayist, considered large tracts of the score to be “monotonously frivolous,” but he was being too severe. Haydn, meeting Beethoven in the street, supposedly praised the music, to which Beethoven replied: “Oh, dear Papa, you are too good, but mine is no Creation by a long shot.” The words may sound improbable, but Maynard Solomon, best of Beethoven’s modern biographers, has quoted them without reservation. The ballet in our own time has had a new lease of life, and several of the sixteen dances - not least the striking interlude for the ballerina Maria Casentini, with its solo cello and plashing harp - have regained a small place in the orchestral repertoire.

As for the overture, it has long enjoyed a separate existence as a concert piece. It is similar in style to Mozart’s Cosi fan tutte overture, and to the first movement of Beethoven’s own First Symphony, which he wrote around the same time. Each has a slow introduction, starting provocatively on a discord and continuing with a flowing, tender melody; and each then unleashes a racy, sparkling allegro, exhilarating in its momentum.

The sweet-toned Pastorale movement, which follows, anticipates the glow of the finale of the Pastoral Symphony. But - after the romantic Casentini solo - what the finale of Prometheus more startlingly anticipates is nothing less than the finale of the Eroica Symphony, with its famous Napoleon (or in this case Prometheus) theme, which for a time so obsessed Beethoven that he employed it in several of his works before bringing it to a state of symphonic perfection in the Eroica itself.

© Conrad Wilson